The Battle of Fredericksburg
11-15 December 1862
by Mark Bradley, CMH
At the start of the Fredericksburg Campaign, the Union Army of the Potomac managed to steal a march on the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. But owing to the failure of the Federals' pontoon bridge equipment to arrive at the crossing of the Rappahannock River as scheduled, the Southerners were able to block the road to Richmond. The Union commander, General Burnside, decided to launch a frontal assault against the Confederate position at Fredericksburg, resulting in one of the Union Army's most lopsided tactical defeats of the Civil War.
One week after taking command of the Army of the Potomac on 7 November 1862, Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside executed a forty-mile, cross-country march from his camps near Warrenton, Virginia, to Stafford Heights opposite Fredericksburg, Virginia. Burnside's rapid maneuver placed Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia at a decided disadvantage, for Burnside's 120,000-man army threatened to position itself between Lee's 78,000-man army and Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital.
Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside
General Robert E. Lee
Before moving south on Richmond, Burnside would first have to cross the Rappahannock River, but owing to delays and miscommunication, the pontoon bridge equipment that was supposed to be waiting for him at Stafford Heights on 17 November did not arrive until the twenty-fifth. By then, Lee's army was occupying a range of hills across the river a short distance beyond Fredericksburg. Nevertheless, after several days of anxious deliberation, Burnside decided to cross the Rappahannock near the town and at a point about a mile downstream. Early on the morning of 11 December, Federal engineers began assembling the bridges and completed the lower spans later that day. But heavy rifle-musket fire emanating from Fredericksburg forced the engineers to scurry for cover with the upper bridges just half-finished.
An impatient Burnside ordered his chief of artillery, Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt, to pound the rebels into submission with his 150 guns. After a two-hour barrage in which the Union artillery fired over 8,000 rounds into the town, the Federal engineers warily crept back onto their pontoons. Much to the bridge-builders' disappointment, Confederate marksmen again opened fire on them. Burnside then ordered volunteers to cross the river in bulky pontoon boats and drive the enemy from Fredericksburg. Once across, the Union assault force slowly drove the stubborn Confederate defenders back in a rare example of Civil War urban combat. The Federals cleared the town by dusk. The engineers, meanwhile, completed the bridges, and the Army of the Potomac occupied Fredericksburg.
On 12 December, Federal troops continued to march into town, but Burnside made no attempt to organize them for an assault. Instead, Union soldiers exploited the free time by pillaging and vandalizing homes and shops while the Confederates prepared for an expected attack. Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's Corps held the right of Lee's line on Prospect Hill, while Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's Corps manned the left along Marye's Heights above Fredericksburg.
Battle of Fredericksburg, December 13, 1962
(Select map image for larger view)
Early on the morning of 13 December, Burnside issued his assault orders for his three grand divisions. Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin's Left Grand Division would first strike Jackson's Corps, and then Maj. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner's Right Grand Division and Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker's Center Grand Division would attack Longstreet's Corps. Spearheading Franklin's assault was the 4,500-man infantry division commanded by Maj. Gen. George G. Meade. Focusing on a triangular patch of woods jutting out toward them, Meade's troops advanced with fixed bayonets. On reaching their objective, the Federals were delighted to discover that they had stumbled upon a 600-yard gap in the Confederate line. Meade's men pushed on and brushed aside a brigade of South Carolina troops before gaining the crest of Prospect Hill, deep within Jackson's position. On learning of Meade's breakthrough, Jackson calmly directed a massive counterattack that succeeded in driving back the heavily outnumbered Federals and securing the Confederate line. Aside from a few tentative probes by either side, the fight for Prospect Hill sputtered out following Meade's assault.
In the meantime, Burnside waited anxiously for news of Franklin's offensive, mindful that the attack on Marye's Heights should not commence until he was sure Franklin had begun to roll up Jackson's line. By late morning, Burnside had decided to abandon his plan of attack, and he ordered Sumner's Grand Division forward. Sumner's first assault began at noon, setting a terrible precedent for the successive attacks that followed, wave after wave, until nightfall.
The advance began on the edge of Fredericksburg. Federal soldiers had to descend into a swale, cross a water-filled ditch, ascend an open slope that stretched for 400 yards to the Sunken Road at the base of the heights, all the while under a deafening cannon fire from artillery positioned atop Marye's Heights and elsewhere. Longstreet's guns tore large gaps in the long blue lines, and the Federals who reached the forward slope had to face sheets of Confederate small arms fire originating from behind the stone wall fronting the Sunken Road. The men in blue bent their heads and hunched their shoulders as if advancing into a rainstorm, but not one Union soldier reached the stone wall. As he surveyed the systematic destruction of Burnside's assault formations, Lee turned to Longstreet and commented, "It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it."
As the afternoon wore on, Burnside ordered Hooker's Center Grand Division to join in the attack. As Brig. Gen. Andrew A. Humphrey's V Corps division waded through the human debris of previous assaults, some of Humphrey's men had to break free from well-meaning hands that sought to prevent their advance. The final Union attack began after sunset and proved as futile as its predecessors. Darkness brought the fighting to an end. That night, the cries and the groans of the wounded filled the air. A distraught Burnside drafted orders to renew the offensive in the morning and even resolved to lead the main attack until his subordinates convinced him to abandon the suicidal scheme. On the night of 15-16 December, Burnside withdrew the Army of the Potomac across the Rappahannock, taking up his bridges behind him. The Fredericksburg Campaign was over.
The Battle of Fredericksburg was a resounding Confederate tactical victory, as the lopsided casualty figures suggest. The fighting cost the Federals 12,600 killed, wounded, or missing, while the Confederates sustained 5,300 casualties. Determined to rescue his reputation and bolster the morale of his army, Burnside attempted to launch a midwinter campaign the following month, but torrential rains soon derailed his plans. His aborted campaign became forever known as "The Mud March." On 26 January 1863, Burnside submitted his resignation to President Abraham Lincoln, who accepted it and appointed Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker to command the Army of the Potomac. During the winter months, Hooker would rebuild his army and prepare for the next campaign to capture Richmond, which would begin with the coming of spring. In the meantime, Lee's army would be waiting for him across the Rappahannock River.
CMH Related Publications
Civil War Medal of Honor Recipients
Battle of Fredericksburg: The Army of the Potomac crossing the Rappahannock: in the morning of December 13, 1862, under the command of Generals Burnside, Sumner, Hooker & Franklin.
Kurz & Allison, Art Publishers, Chicago, U.S.
Source: Library of Congress